There’s Been A Misunderstanding

This week, a really interesting study appeared on my twitter feed. Here’s a brief introduction to the study’s findings from The Harvard Gazette

“The study, published Sept. 4 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that, though students felt as if they learned more through traditional lectures, they actually learned more when taking part in classrooms that employed so-called active-learning strategies.” 

Now, I am a bit conflicted when I read that because it appears this study taps into a topic I am very interested in, but it doesn’t look like it supports what I believe to be true. I’m torn…if I read this, it may really complicate my beliefs…but, if I don’t, I’m falling into the trap that is confirmation bias. When I read that opening, again, it implies to me that lecture is not as effective as classrooms that employ active learning strategies. I don’t want to believe it. What faults can I find in the study?* This cannot be true. I should just ignore it altogether, right?

Knowing what I’ve constantly said to my students about fighting confirmation bias and that I wanted to provide the best classroom for learning, I had to take a look. So, I printed out the article and dove in once I found some free time. Now, I should’ve known better. As soon as I began reading the article, it all became clear. In the study, lecture equated to a professor talking and working through examples for the entire class period. There was no discussion, no questioning, no teacher-student interaction. This is not how I define the lecture. Lecture, to me, equates to the teacher instructing, explaining, et cetera, but also allows for student questioning, student discussion, chances for retrieval practice, and review of material. As for the experimental group that learned via active learning** strategies, “the instructor actively engaged the students using the principles of deliberate practice”. (1) Students worked through problems while the instructor roamed the classroom to answer any questions. Then, the instructor worked the problems for all to see. While not exactly a lecture, this is certainly part of the process in my classroom (and I consider myself a teacher who primarily lectures)…I instruct, you question me, you work problems, I provide answers, we discuss, you ask questions for feedback, I clarify. We do this again a few days later for spaced practice. I definitely do most of the talking, initially, in my classroom…since I am the person with the knowledge on the subject matter. But, after lecturing, there has to be time for students to work with the material. At least, that’s how I see it.

After having a look at the study, it all makes much more sense. Of course, the students in the control group, who didn’t really have to cognitively work with the material, didn’t score as well on the ‘test of learning’ at the end of the class period as the ‘active learning’ experimental group. Generally speaking, learning should be cognitively effortful. The way I see it, students should be provided with the subject matter in as clear and organized manner as possible and then afforded the opportunities to mentally work with the material. 

There are two overarching points I want to make here:

  1. Definitions matter. In this study, the cognitive dissonance I first experienced when coming across the title and reading the abstract, was quickly resolved once I discovered that my definition of lecture does not fall in line with the study’s definition. Many times, during discussions with others on twitter, I eventually uncover the debate I find myself in stems from a misunderstanding…a difference in definitions for some educational term/tactic/concept. Usually, once this is discovered, we see that our beliefs really aren’t far apart at all and we have much more in common than we presumed. 
  2. Fight confirmation bias. Don’t immediately ignore those who disagree with you or dismiss their beliefs as wrong…learn from them. If you only encounter and dialogue with those who agree with you, you run the risk of becoming overconfident and experiencing a bit of group polarization. It can become uncomfortable to engage in these discussions, but they keep you honest. Education is too tricky and messy to ignore dissenters’ beliefs.

Changing gears a bit, I’m hoping to lead a PLC (professional learning community) at my school this year that focuses on studying important research articles.  As a group, we’ll pick a topic and find a paper. Then we’ll read the article and meet to discuss. I think it will be really neat to get others in the building looking at research. Plus, quite selfishly, I am always interested in others’ takes from educational literature. It’s fascinating to me how two people can read the same information, but due to differing prior knowledge/experience, derive somewhat different interpretations of the information.

Reading the article discussed above reminds me of some important points I need to cover during the PLC:

1. Don’t judge a book (or article) by its cover (its title). 

2. Make sure you understand the context for the research. This particular study occurred in the college setting. Does that apply to my classroom? 

3. Read it and consider it, even if it doesn’t fit your narrative (fight confirmation bias).

4. What are the pros/cons of the study? A little look at the research methods conducted.

5. How does this apply to your classroom?

6. How might it impact your instruction and learning?

7. If you start implementing this in the classroom, what are you going to take out?

If you’ve got other questions that need to be considered, or if you’d like to be informed of the studies we’re reading and maybe would like to join somehow, just let me know. The more, the merrier. 

*Here is a thread by Jesse Stommel where he discusses some of the faults he finds in the study. 

**As for ‘active learning’…all learning is, cognitively speaking, active learning. There is no such thing as passive learning

***I am fortunate enough to work at a school that values the contributions of their teachers. Every year, teachers are invited to host semester or year long professional learning groups on a wide variety of topics (Last year, I lead a group that discussed the wonderful book, Understanding How We Learn). 

  1. https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2019/09/03/1821936116

5 comments

  1. Blake, this research and your post are incredibly relevant to me. This year I have decreased my lecture time to <10% of class time with my 11&12 grade students. I use centers and have a co-teacher to facilitate this because I feel that I, personally, can teach more effectively to small groups with the population of students that I have.
    I would love to participate in a research group; I think we would definitely challenge each other and have some productive conversations.

  2. I’m afraid you may have let you confirmation bias still creep in . Not sure which study you reviewed but in the

    Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom
    Louis Deslauriers, Logan S. McCarty, Kelly Miller, Kristina Callaghan, Greg Kestin
    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Sep 2019, 201821936; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1821936116

    They listed the following:

    In the control group, the instructor presented slides based on the handouts, gave explanations and demonstrations, and solved the example problems while students listened and filled in the answers along with the instructor. Emphasis was placed on maximizing the fluency with which the information was delivered. The use of handouts and focus on problem-solving was different from the usual lectures in these courses.

    So many professors (and students) still think the lecturing is best because they don’t want to give up control, they like being the sage on the stage, and it what’s they’re most familiar with. However several studies have shown that when there effort on the part of the student the learning was stronger deep and retain longer. Thus having students engaged is better then have the didactic approach (even if they don’t think so).

  3. Good idea on creating a PLC – I started doing this at my school and it’s been a hit. I’d be careful about what article to choose, especially if it seems to run counter to the sort of “ethos” of the school. Because of this I started framing the PLC around two articles, each around the same topic (i.e. guidance or learning styles) one that seems to run counter to our school’s ethos and the other that seems to confirm it.

  4. 8 agree with your analysis, except for one point – I believe that the term ‘lecture’ better fits the definition of the study you described. And in this sense, lecturing per se almost never occurs in the classroom. Or at least shouldn’t

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